My Top Five Marathons

No 1

Dublin, Ireland

This marathon starts and finishes in the city centre. In Dublin almost all the public transport goes through the city centre, making this very accessible. From the off the Dublin marathon is very intense. Supporters are active, and continuously cheer clap and shout encouragement. This is from mile one to the finish. It can feel like the friendly supporters all have skin in the game, and you are it. I have started this marathon in -2C right up to 12C. The temperature in Dublin in October, on average, is perfect for running. The course is flat and the finish is located in an area awash with pubs, coffee shops and restaurants. My number one so far.

27th October 2014

Deciding to run a marathon is a big day. Almost as big as the race day. I have seen people line up on the starting line dressed in the most ridiculous of outfits: a mankini, a fireman's outfit, a Barney suit, even a cardboard box. The reality is a marathon is hundreds of miles, the 26.2 are just the last bit. And really, who is qualified to call someone else crazy? Certainly no one in the race.

I have run marathons and wondered about death, even wished for death. I have run marathons and thanked the universe for giving me the opportunity to feel so alive. I have looked back and said I should have been more prepared. I should have trained differently. I should have respected the distance more. ‘I will be grand’ just doesn’t cut it for a race of 26.2 miles. (I have tried. It doesn’t work.) But I have never looked back and said, ‘I wish I hadn’t lifted my fat arse off the chair and trained for that marathon.’ Not yet anyway.

Dublin 2014 was probably my greatest disaster so far. I can go there in an instant. I had run a sub 4-hour marathon six months earlier in Tralee. I was sure that running marathons in over four hours was something that was behind me. From now on I was only going to get faster and faster. Surely.

I had only one goal—mistake number one. My goal was to finish in or around 3 hours and 50 minutes. I started with the 3 hour 50 pacer, a small slight man with a large white balloon tied from his waist. The first ten miles, I was feeling good. Miles 11 and 12 were just a bad patch, I thought as I started to feel sluggish and tired. On Mile 13, I knew I was screwed. The pacer started to leave me, and I couldn’t get my breathing right.

Fiona and my son Jem were at Mile 15, and I felt like death as I passed by. Jem ran a few hundred metres with me. I had run the first half of the race too fast and was paying for it. From that point on, every step was painful. Soon after, every breath.

At Mile 22 I met my friend Laura. We had run the Dublin marathon together the previous year, so I couldn’t look her in the eye.

On Mile 23, I felt like I was running in slow motion. I saw some friends and family, and I felt embarrassed at having got it so wrong.

I hit Mile 25 feeling like a dead man running. Why am I running this race? Why am I alive? What is the meaning of this life? What’s the point in this much suffering? I stopped and walked bits. I was dizzy and found it hard to focus. I didn’t know or care where I was.

I crossed the finish line with a time of 4 hours 24 minutes. A full 25 minutes slower than my previous marathon.

No 2

Moscow, Russia

This is a well organised marathon. The route is spectacular for a tourist and it is flat. It is easily accessible by subway and is very friendly. Not many people speak English so some preparation is required.

24th September 2017

As the connecting flight leaves Frankfurt and heads to Moscow, my thoughts and feelings are about fifty miles ahead of the plane. Once again I tell myself, this is the juice. The butterflies make me jittery and nervous. I love this feeling. Fiona is reading a Moscow guide aloud. Reminding me that there is life outside marathons. There are cafes, bars, restaurants, museums and tourist attractions everywhere. Even the underground Metro that takes you around is spectacular. Apparently. According to this guide, four nights might not be enough.

Neither of us has been to Moscow before. Our Russian is limited. I have three words, four at a push. Fiona has a grasp on the alphabet and a few phrases so if we hang together, I should be okay.

Running marathons has taken me to places I might not have otherwise had reason to visit. Armagh City in Northern Ireland was my last, a city with a population of 15,000.  Today a city of 14.2 million.

After I put my first foot into the underground ‘metro’ I knew that I was stepping into something special. Having visited London many times and lived in New York, I have seen subways before. But I have never seen anything like the Moscow Metro. With nine million journeys taken every day it is clearly a functioning underground system. That’s more than New York and London combined. Over the next four days, ninety seconds was the longest we waited for a train. Someone told me they once had to wait three minutes. Two other things struck me: the friendliness of the people and the cleanliness of the city.

It must be a cultural value, I thought, after another notable difference I observed just before the race. At the beginning of every marathon at least 20% of the runners have to pee. It’s a nerves thing. In Rome hundreds of men and women lined the grass banks on the sides of the starting corrals, squeezing out one last pee. Every city I have run in I have experienced something similar. But not Moscow. I did not see one person head for the bushes. On mile 13, I ran by three port-a-loos, each with a long queue. There were two military men standing close by. The surrounding bushes remained untouched. I thought I had seen law abiding in Germany, but this was a new level. Maybe they know something about the military that I don’t. I didn’t even see anyone J-Walking.

My greatest surprise was that Moscow is so full of colour. In all the Cold War movies it looks so cold and dour. Always black and white with a heavy dose of grey. And now the sun shone and the sky was blue.  

On marathon day it was sweltering hot, without a cloud in the sky. This was going to be a problem. I decided to run to enjoy, and not to try and break any records. I didn’t really have a choice. We arrived early as advised, to get through security. Fiona and I wished each other good luck and went to our starting areas.

As we were corralled into our starting blocks, five drones criss-crossed each other above our heads while we waited to start. The hooter went and, as always, the release of tension that comes with movement was wonderful. The first water station 5k in came not a second too soon. I drank a cup of water, poured one on my head, and tucked a wet sponge into my shirt at the back of my neck. I did the same every 5k for the rest of the race. The heat was intense, and every time I had a strong thirst before I got close to the next water station.

Having spent the previous day sightseeing, it was great to recognise some areas. Somehow it makes the distance shorter. By the time we hit the Kremlin, about eighteen miles in, my muscles were starting to cramp. This had never happened to me before. I had to slow down. I walked Mile 25 to 26 with great difficulty. I just about managed to run the last few hundred metres.

After finishing, I collected my medal and sat in the stand set up at the finish, watching runners crossing the finish line. I remembered starting out eight years ago. I thought about the cold nights struggling around Rathfarnham. I laughed to myself at how far out of my comfort zone I had ventured. I had just run my fifteenth marathon, and I was sitting at the finish line in Moscow feeling a little smug. I was trying to spot Fiona running through the finish, when I passed out. I woke a few moments later, I think a woman woke me and offered me a banana. I got up and thanked her, took the banana, and moved out of the stand. There is safety at ground level. I felt weak and had to struggle not to throw up. I went in and out of sleep and sweats for a while before regaining my composure.  I thought, When is this shit going to get easier? I put it down to the heat, general tiredness, and exhaustion.  Whatever it was, lying on the side of the road, semi conscious, trying not to throw up was not how I saw this going.  

Half an hour later, after a lot of water and a few bananas I had mostly recovered. My bad spell had passed, and now I felt very alive.

When Fiona crossed the finish line she looked so well and fresh and had a big smile. It reminded me that being fit and healthy is streets ahead of being competitive. Moderation is where it's at. As if I needed a reminder. Having to run farther, faster, is very personal and probably not recommended.

I thought, Next time I run a race it will be at a relaxed pace, and I will finish with a smile looking fresh. Even I knew, the thought was a lie.

Fiona and I headed back to the hotel and slept for an hour. Before heading out to celebrate.

No 3

Rome, Italy

Rome is beautiful and interesting, especially the old town. On the morning of the marathon the subway is free to all participants. The start and finish are in the shadow of the Colosseum. I don’t think it could be more spectacular. This is a flat course and runs through and around many historical sites, the Vatican being one. On completion there are many outdoor bars and cafes to wander between.

21st March 2010

I had no idea how unprepared I was that day I stood in the shadow of the Colosseum, waiting for the starting gun. Fiona and I had prepared as best we could, with only one minor hiccup. I had rehearsed the early morning routine a few times. Up three hours before race time to eat a bowl of porridge with a small bit of milk and drink a glass of warm water. That was my routine. What could go wrong?

I took the porridge out of my suitcase and added milk from the fridge … then I noticed the milk was lumpy and had gone off. I had no more porridge or food. Being coeliac, I had brought all my food with me to Rome. Just before panic set in, I found a half eaten bagel from the flight in my jacket pocket. Saved.

Everything else went to plan, our train to the starting line was on time, and we had packed the amount of gels required to fuel the 26.2 miles. I don’t use gels or drink milk now. I find sugary gels give me an immediate boost but drop my energy levels shortly afterwards. From experience any form of dairy interferes with my breathing. I talk more about sugar and dairy in the ‘Fuel’ section.

Moments before the starting gun, Fiona noticed my shorts were inside out. I took it as a reminder not to take myself too seriously. We had barely enough time to laugh then we were off.

The first five miles we were giddy with excitement and overwhelmed by the number of runners. About 20,000. The second five miles were not so easy. The endlessness of a marathon started hitting home. Feelings of despair and questions along the line of ‘What was I thinking’ flooded in. Miles 10 to 15 were a struggle. Every five miles I took a gel for an energy boost. I sipped water and walked through every water station, which was about every three miles. The plan was simple: Slow jog start to finish. With a big chunk of luck, nothing would stop us from finishing. How hard could it be!

What I overlooked was that I had skipped most of my long runs. Instead of running 4 or 5 times a week, I ran 2 or 3. When I didn’t feel like running more than a few miles, I didn’t. Inexperience and laziness had won me over.  When presented with a choice, I had taken the easy option in training. I wasn’t aware that all the work for a marathon is done in advance. There is no reward without the work. None.

At Mile 16 there was a loud speaker blasting out ‘Heroes’ by David Bowie. Sometimes it’s the small things you hang on to. I remember the boost I got from hearing a song I like. It was as if they were playing it for me. We plodded along, and the crowds and noise kept my legs going. I didn’t notice the miles passing from Miles 15 to 20. Maybe I did and I just can’t remember. They say running is a bit like childbirth: It gives you amnesia. The occasion and the feeling that I was actually running a marathon gave everything a very unreal feel.

At Mile 20 we entered St. Peter’s Square, Vatican City. There was a sharp turn and some runners, confused and short of oxygen to the brain maybe, turned too sharply and started running back the way we came. It was funny, but I was only a few breaths away from doing the same. Now it was about not stopping; I knew if I stopped I wouldn’t start up again. My legs, feet, and lungs hurt. We were now heading for the Colosseum and the finish line.

I tried not to think of the history. The thousands of men slaughtered here for the amusement of the Romans. It seemed a bit ironic that we were racing to the Colosseum and not away from it. Crossing the finish line, I was astounded to see so many people behind us.

First chance, I rang my kids back home in Ireland. My youngest, who was five at the time, picked up. “I finished the marathon,” I said, bursting with excitement and emotion.

“Did you win?” she replied.

“No,” I said.

“So what are you ringing me for?”

I didn’t really have an answer to that. Trust kids to put your feet back on the ground.

No 4

Dusseldorf, Germany

I love Dusseldorf airport, it is small and efficient and close to the city. There is good lively support in this marathon and plenty of loud music, which is always welcome to a tired runner. The course is flat and the final few hundred metres are downhill. At the finish line there is plenty of free food and alcohol free beer. But Dusseldorf also has showers. Hot showers. The finish is situated at the Old Town, packed with bars and restaurants.

24th April 2016

We left the house that morning with a spring in our step. On the tram heading into Düsseldorf no one spoke. There was nothing to say.

We thought we were ready. There is a feeling before a race that’s a mixture of nerves, fear, and vulnerability. That day there was also a bit of something else. I think it was confidence.

Christmas three months earlier was always going to be a running Christmas more than a nights out, social-type Christmas. I had a training partner and good friend Emma (my running wife) helping me through. We were the same standard and were training for the same marathon, so with a little luck and a lot of discipline we were hoping for a good race time. Training with others is not only more enjoyable, it simply makes you run faster. The previous year in the Düsseldorf marathon, I missed a sub 4-hour finish by 7 seconds. I had a bit of an edge on me this time around.

Training started the first week of January, and the first long run in week one was twelve miles. This meant getting up to twelve miles in the ‘out of training’ time, to be ready for week one. I had scheduled a sixteen-week training programme and it all went to plan. I ate well, slept well, trained hard, and avoided injury. For the first time, I ran four times per week and didn’t skip runs.

The day came, and I found myself standing by the Rhine at the starting line. I felt nervous as usual, but ready. Music was playing, and Emma and I started to dance. We must have looked ridiculous. There was no hiding it—we felt good.

Our plan was to run the first twenty-one miles at 8 minutes 45 seconds per mile. If we had anything left in the tank we would reassess and either hold the pace or maybe even speed up. Our first aim was to run a sub 4-hour race. We had trained together for three solid months. I suspected Emma might leave me behind somewhere around Mile 20. She had been looking very sharp the last few weeks.

We were off. No more training, waiting, speculating. In four hours—hopefully a little less—we would know exactly where we were at. Düsseldorf is flat, and this day it was cold and dry. Perfect conditions.

At Mile 10 we felt good. Too early to predict a finishing time, but things were looking good.

At Mile 15 we had a brief snow shower. It was lovely, anything that takes your mind off your body is good.

Mile 20 we saw we had held a steady 8:45 pace and decided to keep it up. I now knew this was going to be a good day.

At Mile 25 just before Emma took off, Fiona stepped out, handed me some dates, and said, “You’ve got this. You’ve got this.”

In Düsseldorf, the last few hundred yards are gloriously downhill. And with the finish line in sight, I ran to the end, ecstatic. I crossed the finish line, arms held high. My finish time was 3.51.01, 9 minutes 6 seconds faster than my previous attempt. I was filled with such joy I thought I was going to explode. Four months, hundreds of miles, and a target I broke by 9 minutes!

The discipline had paid off.

No 5

Vienna, Austria

This is a flat marathon in a beautiful city. This has to be one of the easiest cities to get around by public transport. Buses, trams and an underground subway criss cross with ease for the traveller. The race started off uncomfortably congested for the first five miles. Around the 13 mile mark there is a very welcome mile or two that is downhill. This marathon is well supported, but you may not know it, as the crowd are almost silent. A great city for food with an world famous opera house thrown in, for those seeking something different. There are hot showers at the finish.

23rd April 2017

Every marathon holds a unique memory. I remember Vienna as a city of trams. Fiona, Emma, and I had arrived the previous day. The training had gone well even after I lost Emma to injury. After a seven-year sabbatical following the Rome marathon, Fiona was back running and had entered the half marathon. Emma had booked her flights before picking up her injury, so she was going to be supporting us both. We visited the Marathon Expo and walked around the city to get our bearings. We even walked a little of the race route and took photos under the arch of the finish line. A mixture of nerves and excitement filled me. In less than twenty-four hours I would be crossing this line again, hopefully feeling fantastic.

Once again, all the stars aligned for a good race day. It was an early morning in April, cold, dry, and clear. I didn’t know what to expect—the previous week it had been snowing. It was cold, and sun was forecast.

With 42,000 bodies racing, between the full marathon, half marathon and the relay, the first few miles were very congested. Sometime in the first hour the sun came out, and I was too hot and sweating. I knew from experience that I’d have difficulty over the last few miles in this heat. At each water station I took a sip of water and poured the rest over my head to try and cool down. I managed to keep to my target pace of 8 minutes 45 seconds until Mile 20. Then I started to slow. I struggled to keep my time under 9 minutes per mile, and I had to dig deep.

The pain came and I couldn’t hide. I thought I couldn’t bear it for another second. I tried to manage myself one step at a time. Oh God, I thought, how could I have forgotten how bad the pain can be?

Mile 21 was full of doubt, I tormented myself with thoughts: Did I not drink enough? Should I have eaten during the race? Am I too old to be running a marathon? These are three of the dozens of negative thoughts I let invade my brain.

Mile 22 I got a handle on myself and the pain, and I even felt good for a while.

Mile 23 my muscles hurt, my feet hurt, two toes on my left foot ached. I had thoughts of giving up and walking the last few miles home.

Mile 24 and, as if to accompany the pain, along came terror. Had I miscalculated my time? Was I going to break four hours today? This stuck with me until I crossed the finish line.

I had three goals coming into the race: My ultimate goal was a personal best, 03.51.00 or better. My second goal was under 4 hours. My third goal was to finish without injury. On my hand I had drawn a smiley face and written, ‘It will be worth it’ in case I needed a reminder. I needed a reminder. I calculated that I had twenty-five minutes to go. Twenty-five minutes of this almost unbearable pain. My chest felt like it was going to explode, and my legs and feet were on fire. My head was thumping. I started to tell myself, Run the mile you're in—only. I repeated this over and over. I heard my friend Emma shouting, ‘Go on, J. You can do it.’ Emma should have been on this side of the barrier with me only for a knee injury. I pulled something out of the darkness to carry on. I didn’t want to let Emma down, and I knew Fiona was going to pop up somewhere over the next few miles, and I really didn’t want to have to face either of these fabulous women if I imploded at this stage of the race.

I still had a terrible fear that I was going to be outside of 4 hours. I fixed on a tree until I passed it, then a building, a lamp post and so on. I knew if I just kept putting one foot in front of the other I would eventually make it. All the while, Emma was running the last mile alongside me on the other side of the barrier. I noticed it was dense with supporters, yet she was managing to navigate her way through everyone and run faster than me.

A sign eventually appeared 500m to go. I can do this. I can do this. I repeated until the 400m sign appeared, followed by 300m then 200m. I could now see the finish line. I was almost home. I could crawl across cut glass from here. I crossed the line in 03.51.35. Thirty-four seconds slower than my best. What a mixture of feelings: total pain and elation. It would take about an hour, some food, water, and a shower before I could really celebrate in a marathon type of way. All I had to do was be present; my legs slowly lifted off the ground, and I started to float. Inner peace and satisfaction flooded all my cells. It’s a hard-earned high, but it’s amazing.

To my utter joy, there were showers. We were directed by German-speaking men in uniform to enter a very large military army tent. Hundreds of men were stripping naked. There was almost no light. I struggled to find a space that I could change in without bumping into too many people. I managed to take my top off, but while wrestling one of my shoes, I almost fell over and had to lean on two men to the side of me. I was in pain and cramping so badly I couldn’t get to my other shoe. Another naked stranger helped me take it off. No words were spoken, just nods of understanding given. I tried to remember the spot where my bag was and moved with the flow of bodies into the next tent that had the showers. A very gentlemanly system was in order: you stepped in, showered, and stepped out. Soap was passed silently. Each man soaped outside the shower and stepped back in to rinse as another stepped out. This silent dance involved 175 to 200 naked men, rotating in semi-darkness.

Any other day this situation might have felt a bit unusual.